A Lifeline For College Students With Depression Johns Hopkins senior Juliana Kerrest has struggled with mental illness since her early teens. In college, she went so far as to plan her suicide. One thought that stopped her: Her work with the support group Active Minds could help others suffering from mental illness.
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A Lifeline For College Students With Depression

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A Lifeline For College Students With Depression

A Lifeline For College Students With Depression

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It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Today in "Your Health," two reports on young people and mental health. In a moment we'll tell you about a therapy for depression that seems to work. But first, NPR's Joanne Silberner tells us how one young woman with mental illness was able to make it through college.


JOANNE SILBERNER: It's activities day at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Fourteen rows of booths are crowded into the gym. Student groups are trying to attract new members.

JULIANA KERREST: Hi, my name is Juliana. Are you a freshman?

INSKEEP: Yes, I am.

KERREST: Oh, OK. What's your major?

SILBERNER: Twenty-two-year-old Juliana Kerrest is pitching her mental health awareness group to other students. It's called Active Minds.

KERREST: So we bring speakers, like do speaker panels. We also have movie events like "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest." It's really fun.

SILBERNER: It's actually serious business for her. Juliana Kerrest is a young woman with a mental illness. She tells us she didn't think she'd even live to be 22. The activities day was too loud for us to really hear her story, so she took us across the street to her apartment to talk.

KERREST: This is my building.

SILBERNER: Juliana is delicately pretty. Slim with a fine-boned face. But there is something more to see. She doesn't hide it. She has subtle horizontal scars on both arms all the way from her shoulders to her wrists. She says they're self-inflicted.

KERREST: I started self-injuring when I was 13, cutting initially and hitting. And then I tried burning and things like that. But my main one was cutting. I'd get very depressed. I'd have a lot of thoughts of suicide. And I didn't feel like hanging out with my friends. I wouldn't feel like doing anything.

SILBERNER: Juliana got treatment. Still, she had more episodes of depression. But she managed to finish high school and get accepted at Johns Hopkins. Then early in her freshman year on campus she became depressed again. She didn't leave her room or even her bed. Her depression was overwhelming.

KERREST: It's like suffocation, kind of. And it's this very vivid drowning, kind of, but it's like slow. And you just want to stop it and like take a deep breath, kind of, but everything is very thick and heavy. And your brain doesn't seem to be working right, and nothing feels right. And to be so alone in such a darkness is horrible.

SILBERNER: But her friends didn't give up on her. They kept knocking on her dorm door to see if she wanted to go for a snack or to the library.

KERREST: And I wouldn't answer. And I would just be lying there in the dark, but knowing that they would come and knock on the door just made me feel a little better.

SILBERNER: College mental health experts say they are seeing more and more students like Juliana. They say it's because teens are getting good enough mental health care in high school to graduate and get into college. But it can be a struggle. Juliana took medical leave November of her freshman year. By the next fall she felt well enough to come back.

KERREST: My second freshman year, towards the end, I decided that I wanted to start a group about mental health awareness or mental illness on campus.

SILBERNER: A school counselor put Juliana in touch with a national organization, Active Minds. She and a friend founded a chapter at Hopkins in 2006. Juliana says Active Minds isn't a panacea, but it does make a difference. A year after starting the group she became depressed and started thinking about suicide. Her dog slowed down her suicide plans. She's a sweet-as-can-be pit bull that Juliana rescued.

KERREST: See, my main worry was that someone had to find me soon enough so that they'd come to feed my dog and take her out. So I was going to go the hotel next door. I knew that after I checked out the room reservations online, I knew that I had to go tell someone or else I was going to go through with it.

SILBERNER: And the someone she called was the campus adviser to Active Minds. Juliana says Active Minds makes a difference, partly because it helps her focus on something other than her own depression.

KERREST: Instead of thinking about mental illness, you know, because I just cut myself or I am suicidal, I am thinking about how many freshmen are out there who just got into school, they don't know what to do, you know. Maybe they're going to start feeling depressed. And I want to reach out to them, you know. And it's using this very big negative in my life and kind of turning into something positive.

SILBERNER: Today she says the loneliness isn't as bad. She doesn't think her days of depression and sometimes mania are over, but she thinks she can live through them. And when she graduates this coming May, she's hoping to get a job with an international human rights group where she can use the leadership and organizing skills she's gotten from her involvement with Active Minds. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can find a list of recommendations to help students with mental illnesses make a smoother transition to college at npr.org/yourhealth.

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